A Retreat with Hopkins: Holy Saturday

Unknown painter - Resurrection of Christ and the Harrowing of Hell - WGA23499

‘O Death, Death’

O Death, Death, He is come.
O grounds of Hell make room.
Who came from further than the stars
Now comes as low beneath.
Thy ribbèd ports, O Death
Make wide; and Thou, O Lord of Sin,
Lay open thine estates.
Lift up your heads, O Gates;
Be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors
The King of Glory will come in.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, March 1865


This very intertextual poem is drawn largely from Paul’s treatment of death in 1 Corinthians and Psalm 24, linking the idea of liturgically entering the Temple with the tradition of the Harrowing of Hell. As a Jesuit, it is likely that Hopkins would have read the following description of this tradition from an ancient homily:

Something strange is happening–there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

Whenever I read the Terrible Sonnets, like we did together yesterday, I keep this poem in mind. It’s the ever present consolation even when all he could think was that “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.” It’s that far-off yet continually arriving moment when his roots are finally given rain.

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